a dark room on the other side of the world

on d.h. lawrence & moral fiction

D.H. Lawrence by Elliott & Fry

Hello friends—

Long time, no see. I took a bit of a hiatus to promote Filthy Animals and to do some inner accounting. I’m moving to New York in a couple of weeks, after which I will resume my weekly letter here. I have some exciting updates on the horizon, too, some pieces I’m proud of that will be finding their way out to you soon.

In the meantime, I wanted to share this little craft essay I wrote to give as a talk to the MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson. It’s about moral art and moral fiction in our contemporary world. I hope it makes sense.

For a long time, I thought that the key to writing a good short story had to do with recreating some particular arrangement of details and facts. I’d write a scene in which someone walked from one end of a room to the other in order to say something to someone, and I’d delete that scene because it wasn’t right. But of course the joke was that in fiction, nothing is ever right. You’re making it up. And yet, as a younger writer and still today sometimes, I had this feeling that what I was writing was connected to something in a dark room on the other side of the world, that I was transcribing something true and real and fundamental, something that existed somewhere.

In his 1925 essay, “Morality and the Novel,” D.H. Lawrence says:

When van Gogh paints sunflowers, he reveals, or achieves, the vivid relation between himself, as man, and the sunflower, as sunflower, at that quick moment of time. His painting does not represent the sunflower itself. We shall never know what the sunflower itself is. And the camera will visualize the sunflower far more perfectly than van Gogh can. The vision on the canvas is a third thing, utterly intangible and inexplicable, the offspring of the sunflower itself and van Gogh himself.

The vision on the canvas is for ever incommensurable with the canvas, or the paint, or van Gogh as a human organism, or the sunflower as a botanical organism. You cannot weigh nor measure nor even describe the vision on the canvas. It exists, to tell the truth, only in the much-debated fourth dimension. In dimensional space it has no existence.

It is a perfect description of the weird, paradoxical nature of truth-telling through fiction. Art is and perhaps can only ever hope to be a record of impressions that strike our subjectivity at precise temporal intervals. Art is, in Lawrence’s words, “the subtle, perfected relation between me and my whole circumambient universe.”

In my first workshop as a graduate student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, my teacher called me a protective writer. He accused me of subtly shifting the balance of the story in order to make my characters sturdy and safe. That is, I rigged the game in their favor. I short-circuited conversations. I clipped dialogue. I cleverly arranged the flow of my plot in order to linger moodily in tone and atmosphere instead of trying to dramatize those moments of tension that give a story meaning and shape. There was nothing direct in the stories I put up for workshop in that first semester. Everything was just extended set-up and simmering tension. Characters “failed” to say what they wanted to say, but when I look back at those stories, I see that the reasons they failed to say what they wanted to say was that there was never any intention on my part of letting them say or do those things. I had made certain that my characters would be insulated from any difficulty, real difficulty because, as a writer, I simply did not believe in my ability to write the scenes that would support such actions and dialogue.

I’m chasing my tail here. I should just say it: I didn’t know how to write the messy, complicated aftermath of real human confrontation. And so I had substituted in great sentences and lush prose. I had used lyricism and clever feints to dodge around the real dramatic potential of my stories. I had no faith in dramatization. Everything important happened in backstory or exposition. I wasn’t writing honest fiction, but I didn’t know that then. I thought all stories could be perfected through the careful arrangement of moves and tones I had read in other stories and loved.

I was writing immoral fiction. Not in the Gardner sense, but in the D.H. Lawrence sense. He says, “Morality in the novel is the trembling instability of the balance. When the novelist puts his thumb in the scale, to pull down the balance to his own predilection, that is immorality.” In the D.H. Lawrence sense, a moral novel is simply a novel that preserves the instable, ever shifting balance of relations between a subject and the subject’s circumambient universe. A moral novel is not ideologically precious or rigid—it simply portrays the complexities of what it is to move through the world with that ever-evoked ethic of the online: nuance.

I think sometimes as writers, we fall prey to this particular variety of immorality. It is particularly tempting when you’re writing from the so-called margins. When you write exclusively to put people like yourself on the page and under the oppressive gravity of representation-first ethics, your fiction, the moral universe of your fiction, shifts subtly off-balance, and everything comes out off-kilter, unmoored. There is no substance to anything, because the real, true conflicts have all been stifled in favor of erecting the flimsy scaffolding of ready-made social conflicts that have nothing to do with the real substance of a character’s life.

This kind of mirror-first ethics dominates our cultural moment. Consider Hidden Figures. Consider Green Book. Consider Them. Consider black-ish. Consider Bad Hair. Consider Queen and Slim. Consider, in its weaker moments, If Beale Street Could Talk. Consider certain novels it would be outre to mention here, but just think about it for a moment, and they’ll come to you. Consider, too, the whole idiom of publicity and marketing when it comes to black popular culture and media, art and literature. The way our work is packaged and discussed. For a while, I thought that the identity novel was out of fashion. That we had all been on Tumblr and had gotten that sort of thing out of our system, that it was impossible for a black person to sit down and earnestly think, “This one’s for the blacks!” and then write a novel. I find it funny. That such a thing is still possible. That a black writer in 2021 (not to presume a progressive view of art) can, with no irony, sit down and write a novel in which black people suffer profusely and then say I did this one for my mother. It boggles the mind. It bothers me, too, because I recognize my own bad thinking and my own morally dubious projects when I engage bad black art.

I guess I should say that I am speaking here of black art because I am black. But it is not only black art that has this problem. I believe it runs right down to the marrow of all contemporary art. Simply, we live in an era of mass ideology. Every person with a Twitter account is an evangelical of the self. Which is not new. But what is new is that for the first time human history we have access to the teeming masses. And so what we get is a bunch of quick-fire, fast-drying coarse ways of thinking about the world. The blunt instruments of partially digested political theory gleaned out of freshmen seminars or else some pre-chewed bits of Marx flung out into the digital slop pile.

That’s not a very kind or particularly true picture of the internet. What I mean to say is that we are polarized. Not more so than any other point in history, I’m sure, but it certainly feels that way. And it feels that way because we have access to each other and to information at greater quantities than any other time in the world’s history. And it’s those ideas, the velocity of them, that I am convinced is getting us into trouble in our art.

D. H. Lawrence says:

The novel is not, as a rule, immoral because the novelist has any dominant idea, or purpose. The immorality lies in the novelist’s helpless, unconscious predilection. Love is a great emotion. But if you set out to write a novel, and you yourself are in the throes of the great predilection for love, love as the supreme, the only emotion worth living for, then you will write an immoral novel.

It's why so many novels of the early 20th century read as boring pamphlets to us. Why we don’t really like Hawthorne anymore. Fiction with an ostensible moral message went out with the Victorians. But also perhaps it went out because for much of the mid-century, American literature was actively divested from “ideology” and replaced with an ideology of non-ideology. That is, the CIA created the “political” / “art” split (even as art was actively engaged in documenting the real sociopolitical upheaval of their time) as a way to export American values and, perhaps, to prevent the subjected peoples of the world from rising up.

And yet, political art  is back, in ways both subtle and obvious. Back with the increasing mainstreaming of what were once radical ideas about systemic racism and social justice. With our increasing fluency in the ways that we are harmed and made abject by the evils of social and political inequities. Art, ever the sensitive instrument, is changing because we are changing. As it should.

And you might be thinking, Brandon, this sounds great. Isn’t it a good thing that we are putting the personal back into the political and the political back in the personal and that the novel is once again attaining a special resonance with the plights of oppressed people, and shouldn’t we all be writing novels in which the characters talk like someone’s sharecropping great aunt. And maybe that’s true.

But it also feels true that the contemporary novel is having a crisis of morality. Not in the Aesop’s fable sort of way. But in the way that a novel is supposed to capture the specific, particular instability of human relations, and in that instability, it captures the truth about what it is to live in the world. And it feels more and more that when I read novels and stories, you know immediately that the author has their finger on the scale. You see the glancing mentions of class or privilege which read like thesis statements. You see characters behaving in cartoonish, silly ways not for aesthetic effect but so that the audience knows who the bad guy is. The moral evil. You see a flattening of the moral schema of the art in favor of resonance with the Twitterfied set of ethics by which we are expected to live and operate. You recognize it for false, and yet, each publishing cycle, there is more and more of such a thing.

Immoral is best described in the Louise Glück poem, “Telescope” when she says:

You realize afterward
not that the image is false
but the relation is false.

You see again how far away
every thing is from every other thing.

It all sounds very abstract, I know. But for me, it comes down to this: moral fiction is not fiction that affirms your ideology about power systems and oppression. It does not make you feel like a good and righteous person. It may have no lessons for you to tweet about or put on Instagram or explain readily, wittily at dinner parties. You can’t wear it like a hair shirt and you can’t always articulate its particular force or power upon you. Moral art is, I think, hard to describe. Instable. It is art that implicates and complicates your notions of good and bad. Moral art may call you a liar to your face. It reveals the shallowness of your thought. It challenges you, but not in the way of an all-fiber diet. In the way gravity challenges you. In the way the thin air at the top of a mountain challenges you. In the way the pressure of the deep seas challenges you. Moral does not mean good or lawful. Moral means true. Moral means you take your finger off the scale.

To make moral art, moral fiction, is to get out of the way. To make moral art is to admit one’s humble place in the order of things. I think moral fiction is less about signaling to the reader that you voted for the right people or that you are able to listen to people who would have you destroyed. Moral fiction does not signal. That is propaganda. That is social work. Not that these are unimportant things, but they are not art. And they are not moral.

I recently dug out an email to my editor that I sent while working on the stories in my collection Filthy Animals. We had been going back and forth about the edit, and I kept wanting to add things. And eventually, he told me some things had to come out of the stories, and I gave it a real think. This is what I said, in describing the stories I wanted to write:

I want the stories to feel like a continuous moral universe. Like the stories exist apart from my having written them. That's what makes James so good, I think. And Camus and Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro. Those stories stay with us because they feel continuous with our moral universe. With our understanding of reality. The weave of their circumstances is so tight and so attended to. Unlike so much of contemporary fiction, which strains to stay in the imagination for the length of a story even. There's nothing fastening those stories to any kind of substance. They just accrue detail and vanish. So. I have to attend to those things in these stories. Otherwise, it's all lyrical nonsense.

Lyrical nonsense is not the antithesis of moral art. It is an effect of art that fails to be moral in a D.H. Lawrence sense. Language meant to obfuscate a lack of moral accounting, by which I mean mostly, fiction that has no skeletal system except some outwardly derived thoughts about what is and is not socially acceptable. A moral novel has no interest in what is socially acceptable. A novel is about people. Or, I should say, the kind of novel and fiction I want to write is about people first, not the various systems that pre-ordain their flight patterns. It is about the people and how they move through the world. How they act and are acted upon. I want to be surprised by my characters, by their particular utterances. Not erected out of received notions but created in the living instant, the very moment.

For me, writing a moral story has the weird dream-logic of an impossible possible task: like trying to sketch a stranger’s face in a dark room from the other side of the world.